Shock isn’t enough

The problem with Ron Mueck at the Fondation Cartier.

Isean Bhalla

October 27, 2023

I don’t think I’ll forget the first Ron Mueck piece I ever saw, Untitled (Big Man) (2000). Big Man is, well, very big. A sculpture of a massive, bald, naked humanoid with his head between his knees—it shocks you. It’s a grotesque piece, but intriguing at first glance—as with most of Mueck’s work, you can’t help but stare, at least at first. But that feeling of shock unfortunately cannot last, as evidenced by the exhibition Ron Mueck, on view through November 5 of this year at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Fondation Cartier), a Paris museum with which Ron Mueck has long had a close connection. I’d forgotten about Big Man until this summer, when I walked into the air-conditioned Fondation Cartier on one of those awful Parisian summer days, when the sky feels like a soup of car exhaust boiling under the sun. I got the sense that the exhibition was all a little bit familiar. 

Maybe that’s unfair. Ron Mueck, an Australian sculptor based in the United Kingdom, does not aim for his work to be simply familiar. Ron Mueck aims to shock, to create a particularly cruel form of the sublime; his work is like the horror novel rendered sculpturally. He wants to make us unabashedly stare, like I did at Big Man. And his exhibition at the Fondation Cartier elicits reactions consistent with his goal—lots of staring, lots of contorting faces, plenty of repulsion.

How does Mueck shock us? The sculptor concocts an intimacy between the viewer and the subject. This goes further than just any old intimacy; the viewer is turned into a voyeur. Voyeur is an imperfect word; there are sexual connotations to “voyeur” that are absent in Mueck’s Fondation Cartier exhibition. Still, the viewer feels that they are looking at something they shouldn’t be seeing, like a visual form of eavesdropping. This forced voyeurism is accomplished primarily, and most obviously, by the fact that Mueck’s figures are often naked. This by itself does not make the viewer a voyeur. But as Mueck has styled these nudes, their nudity is a vulnerable thing: so point-blank, so unromantic, so realistically bleak. These are the most lifelike nudes out there. It appears as if the wire that composes the figures’ hair is actually hair and as if their skin is not marble or bronze or plaster, but some undetermined material that creepily mimics real skin. Mueck has contorted these figures into discomfiting yet undeniably human poses, such as a baby lying on its side in the midst of a tantrum or a solitary man curled up with an expression of evident distress. These are a far cry from the classical marble sculptures of Michelangelo or even the expressive bronze nudes of Rodin. 

In the sculpture of Rodin, there is a clear separation between human experience and art. The material itself creates this separation, for humans cannot be made out of bronze, nor are they always hairless from the neck down, as are Rodin’s sculptures. But confronted with Mueck’s realistic figures, we can see ourselves reflected in their nudity. We too have twisted ourselves too into their vulnerable configurations, or it’s possible that we might. We can imagine ourselves in their positions: knees drawn to our chest, alone on a canoe, staring into the void. Because of their nudity, because of their sad poses, because of Mueck’s materials, and because of the exhibition’s odd lighting, the viewer feels like he is trespassing on the private moments of these poor sculptures. He feels like he is intruding, like a Peeping Tom, but without any of the happiness and only some of the thrill. The viewer is a voyeur, yes, but a rueful one. It feels impossible not to look at something so flagrant, but the viewer must also feel a pang of awfulness while doing so—how can one look at such a vulnerable spectacle? By creating an uneasy voyeuristic intimacy and a feeling of trespassing, Ron Mueck has manufactured shock. In contrast, one feels no shocking kinship with the contorted, awe-inspiring figures upon Rodin’s Gates of Hell (1880–1917). 

But these contorting figures are only one set of Mueck’s works on view here. The exhibition consumes all of the space at the Fondation Cartier. There is another pair of works: one is Mass (2017), which fills up the Fondation Cartier’s greenhouse with piles of gigantic, lifelike, white skulls, with a sole black skull sitting outside the building. The other piece, Untitled (Three Dogs) (2023), is a group of larger-than-life, matte black dogs, alert and menacing, placed in the center of a dark room in the museum’s basement. These two pieces are the latest version of Mueck’s shock-and-awe model. Whereas Mueck’s prior pieces shock immediately, Mass and Untitled (Three Dogs) slowly become shocking upon second glance. 

The first wander around the greenhouse triggers little reaction, but as for the second, the third, and, if you permit yourself, the fourth—each circuit increases the viewer’s response. The shock only reveals itself upon serious reflection; in this way Mass gatekeeps the sensation. Mueck’s Mass is infinitely more effective than his earlier pieces, which shocked the viewer immediately. Mueck has jettisoned the voyeurism of the wire hair and forlorn naked men to create something deeper and more digestible. Gone are the surface-level revulsions and feelings of kinship with sad, gross figures. Instead, Mass, overwhelming the viewer with cairns of skulls, engenders a growing feeling of alienation, a fear of namelessness and loss of individuality. With Untitled (Three Dogs), these fears are even more pronounced, even sublime. In that dark room, with those massive, snarling dogs, it’s hard not to be a little afraid, especially the more you think about their size and power. I love dogs, but these are not like dogs. These “dogs” are one dimensional horror-pieces, and boy, do they horrify.

So Mueck’s art has progressed, becoming more puissant and effective. Still, one cannot be satisfied leaving the Fondation Cartier. Perhaps that’s because it’s hard to be truly satisfied by a piece that you can’t look away from. At the same time, one can look away from Mass without too much difficulty—dare I say that the repetitions required to elicit Mueck’s desired level of shock can be boring? Boring and gruesome are an odd mix, present in any sordid scene. It can be hard—but also eminently easy—to look away from a car crash. We have the innate curiosity to stare, but we also know that there is no benefit in us looking, and the scene is so horrible that our eyes are instantly grateful when our brain sends the signal to move them on to happier views. 

Nobody wants to sit in shock, and it’s not evident that one could even if he wanted to. Our brains have been toughened, our shock receptors dulled. What shocks in 2023 is not what shocked in 2000. Even before the dulling of the senses caused by daily exposure to video, it was observed that shock has limited effect over time. In the 2003 essay Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag reflected on the perennially shocked viewer, suggesting that shock is a necessarily time-limited emotion. “Does shock have term limits?” she asked, speaking of the now-common practice of placing disturbing images on cigarette cartons to demonstrate the negative effects of smoking. The brain becomes habituated to shocking images as a defense mechanism, and is eventually no longer shocked. Just as Sontag predicted, this is what has played out on cigarette cartons. Friends of mine joke about the images slapped onto the cartons. None of them have quit smoking because of them. 

While it’s true that those who buy tickets to the Fondation Cartier’s Mueck exhibition probably want to be shocked, I’d wager that those viewers don’t stay particularly long once they’re there. I’d wager that even fewer make a second visit. The thing about Ron Mueck’s art, and especially his figurative sculptures, is that, as Sontag predicted, the viewer’s brain adapts. The viewer becomes habituated to the shocking sculpture, and over time—sometimes very rapidly—the value of Mueck’s art vanishes. Thus Mass and Untitled (Three Dogs) do not solve the central problem with his art: that it is dependent on shock and thus naturally time-limited. His newer sculptures merely lengthen the time frame, delaying and then elongating the shock period. What Mueck has done is placed a lag on the viewer’s emotions, ensuring that they will remain shocked for longer. Thus Mass is certainly more powerful than the voyeuristic figure sculptures, but the viewer still eventually grows tired of it. 

What we need is not necessarily more shock, but shock married to something else. There’s only so much shock, even delayed shock, that a viewer can take. In contrast, I have spent a good chunk of a rainy afternoon in the garden of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, sitting through the rain, content with drinking in The Gates of Hell. Great art needs its grounding in more than a fleeting emotion. Nobody wants to drink in pure shock for an hour or more, especially with the constant, shocking pressures of the internet era. And even if people wanted to, I’m not sure their brains would let them.

Isean Bhalla is a third-year undergraduate student at New York University studying English literature and public policy.